How valuable would it be to have a top-three pick in the 2016 NHL Draft?
"It would be huge," said Paul Castron, New Jersey Devils director of amateur scouting. "Anyone that was able to bump up into one of those top three picks should be excited and would definitely be getting a player with star potential."
That's a mindset likely held by most NHL scouts regarding the 2016 draft class. After center Auston Matthews of Zurich in Switzerland, right wing Patrik Laine of Tappara in Finland and right wing Jesse Puljujarvi of Karpat of Finland, there are many solid but interchangeable blue-chip prospects available on the draft board.
The 2016 draft will be held June 24-25 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.
The Devils are one of 14 teams hoping for an opportunity to move into the top three when the results of the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery are announced from Toronto on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, CBC; 7:30 p.m. ET, TVA Sports; 8 p.m. ET, NBC). The lottery this year will assign the first three picks of the draft via three separate drawings.
Video: NHL Draft Lottery - Players Perspective
Castron is in his first season with the Devils after spending the previous 16 seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, including the last nine as scouting director.
The Devils have never selected first in the draft, but won the lottery in 2011; under a different set of rules they moved up four spots to No. 4 and selected defenseman Adam Larsson. They have a 3.0-percent chance at winning the drawing for the 2016 No. 1 pick.
"The general consensus is that because Matthews is a center he's probably considered the choice among the three," Castron said. "But when I watch Laine, it's like watching a 6-foot-4 Brett Hull with the way he shoots the puck. I'm not saying Laine is going to score 700-plus goals as Brett did in the NHL, but he's something pretty special. So to me, Matthews and Laine are No. 1 and No. 1A.
"Watching Puljujarvi play for Finland at the World Under-18 Championship in North Dakota last week was like watching a man playing with boys, really."
Matthews next will play for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, to be held May 6-22 in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Laine and Puljujarvi could each be asked to play for Finland when that roster is finalized Sunday.
"That would be pretty good if they're all out on the ice all at once and can battle it out against men and maybe have everyone rethink their order one more time," Castron said.
Laine and Puljujarvi were linemates and helped Finland win the gold medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in January. Matthews was part of the U.S. team that won the WJC bronze medal.
Matthews (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) tied for the tournament lead with seven goals in seven games, tied for the U.S. lead with 11 points and was named to the tournament's All-Star Team. His goal total was one short of Jeremy Roenick's U.S. record set at the 1989 WJC.
Laine (6-4, 206) tied Matthews for the WJC lead with seven goals. Puljujarvi (6-3, 203) led the WJC with 17 points and was named the best forward and most valuable player of the tournament. His point total was the second-highest by an under-18 player at a WJC. Jaromir Jagr of Czechoslovakia had 18 points at the 1990 tournament.
After the three drawings, the 11 remaining teams will be assigned draft spots No. 4 through No. 14 in inverse order of regular-season points. Castron said the 2016 draft class is deeper than maybe some might want you to believe.
"If you take away Connor McDavid, this year's draft is as good or maybe even better than last year when you begin ranking the top 15 players," he said. "There are some dynamic players in this class, even where we're sitting at No. 11 in the order. I'm pretty excited about who we might get."
Among forwards, the top players include Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Matthew Tkachuk of London of the Ontario Hockey League, Alexander Nylander of Mississauga (OHL), Julien Gauthier of Val-d'Or (QMJHL), and Clayton Keller of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program under-18 team.
There also are quite a few defensemen who could be selected in the top half of the first round.
"I do think it's tilted toward the forward position, but defensemen Mikhail Sergachev [Windsor, OHL], Jakob Chychrun [Sarnia, OHL], Olli Juolevi [London, OHL] and Jake Bean [Brandon, Western Hockey League] are probably the defensemen who everyone has in some sort of preferred order," Castron said. "Any one of these guys could go at any point and once the first one it taken, there could be a run."